“Ash Wednesday,” writes Anne Lamont, is supposed to be about preparation, about consecration, about moving toward Easter, toward resurrection and renewal. It offers us a chance to break the distractions that keep us from living the basic Easter message of love, of living in wonder rather than doubt.” Ash Wednesday…
Why do we put ashes on our foreheads? Why do we put ashes—which come from the destruction of something, the death of something—on our skin, skin that is alive, on foreheads that are noble, and between our eyes which are the light of life, and the windows of the soul? Why put death on that?
Ash Wednesday, originally called dies cinerum (the Latin “cinerum” is where we get “incinerate”) probably dates from at least the 8th century where people put ashes on their foreheads as a sign of repentance. Dr. Richard Bucher, a Lutheran scholar, says “the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric (955-1020), in his Lives of the Saints, writes, ‘We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.’”
The Scriptures tell us much about ashes. Adam and Eve, after sinning against God are told, “From ashes you came and to ashes you will return.” Abraham describes himself to God as nothing but “dust and ashes.” Ashes are part of the Levitical sacrifices in the Old Covenant, and there are special preparations for their disposal. The ashes are the remains of the sacrifices of burnt offerings. In the book of Numbers, ashes are used to make clean a place where a death has occurred. Ashes are poured upon the head during times of fasting, repentance and mourning. The most famous lament comes from Job: “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” When Jonah called the wicked city of Nineveh to repent of its sins, we read this: “the word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” And Jesus said, "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes."
In addition, many scientists and philosophers would have us know that the universe is a cold, dark place, and that it too, will soon turn to ashes. You will turn to dust and ashes, and so will everything else. It will all fold up into a vast nothing, and turn to ashes. Isn't that good news?
By contrast, ashes sometimes give us comfort. The only dog I have ever loved was a dear stray, lab mix, and we named her Onyx. Onyx found a peaceful, restful, playful home in my town of Grand Haven, on the shores of Lake Michigan, where she could run and play and enjoy fields of grasses and flowers, streams, woods, trails and dunes. And ah, that blessed expanse we call Lake Michigan and the lapping, laughing shores there. There is a hill in a park in Grand Haven called Duncan’s Woods. It’s in the middle of the city, but there is no evidence of such a city, for there are acres and acres of woodlands, hills and trails where owls rest in the night trees, and deer by the herd employ their daytime dances. On this hill, the highest point in the whole city, is where Onyx’s ashes lay, at the base of a tree whose arms stretch out in welcoming, natural sofas. Such a tree makes the perfect place to rest and ponder away the distractions, with mediations on life, renewal and the peace of the resurrection. Onyx’s ashes were poured out at the base of that tree and her ashes contained, to my surprise, a cornucopia of colors: faintish blues, hues of faded red, green, purple and yellow. The blue was most memorable. Even in death and ashen greys, a prism of colors incarnated themselves.
Ashes come from death, and ashes are death incarnate. We put ashes on our foreheads to remind ourselves of the guilt of our sin, and the corruption of it. We put ashes on our foreheads to remind ourselves of Golgotha, the place of the skull, whereupon a man is suspended on a tree, pierced for our transgressions. And what is a skull except a once beautiful face of life, where now that which gave a smile, or a wink or a laugh, or wept and mourned, or gave a look of compassion, has now turned to ashes, revealing that ominous symbol of death—the skull. We put ashes on our foreheads to remind ourselves of the ashes that became us when our 1st parents sinned in a garden. We put ashes on our foreheads to remind ourselves of a 2nd garden, where a man shed harsh tears and cried cries of faithfulness and obedience. And beyond Golgotha, that place of the skull, and our ashes remind us of a 3rd garden where ashes…turn to ashes. This garden is where death dies. This garden is where ashes are turned in reverse and rendered obsolete. No ashes here. Only the light of life. But until that day, 40 days hence, we repent in dust and ashes, for that is what we are. But not only so, for 40 days hence, we shall be something new.
1) My lovely wife, Monica.
2) Anne Lamnot, Traveling Mercies, p. 91.